Anyone who’s ever been in a long-term relationship knows that, when it comes to sex, we aren’t always on the same wavelength as our partners. Sometimes we’re in the mood, but our partner isn’t. Or maybe it’s the other way around. Either way, it’s usually not a big deal—unless it starts happening over and over again. If your desire for sex gets completely out of sync with your partner and this lasts for months—maybe even years—you have developed what’s known as a sexual desire discrepancy.
Desire discrepancies are common. For example, a nationally representative British sex survey found that approximately one in four adults reported being in a relationship in which they didn’t see eye to eye with their partner regarding the amount of sex they’d like to be having.
There’s a popular stereotype that desire discrepancies are a gendered issue, such that men are always the ones who want more sex while women want less. However, this isn’t the case at all. In heterosexual relationships, it can be either the male or female partner who would prefer having more sex. Desire discrepancies can affect same-sex couples, too.
Discrepant sexual desires can happen in any relationship, but they usually don’t emerge until after a couple has been together for quite some time. Perhaps not surprisingly, when they occur, these discrepancies tend to be highly distressing and often cause serious damage to the relationship. Indeed, studies have found that they’re linked to more conflict, less satisfaction and greater odds of breaking up.
Couples who give each other mini-massages and backrubs are more sexually satisfied than those who don’t.
In light of how common desire discrepancies are and the harm they can potentially inflict, we’d all do well to better understand them so that we can be prepared to respond in productive and healthy ways should we ever wind up in that situation.
So where do desire discrepancies come from? It’s complicated . Numerous factors—biological and psychosocial—can affect sexual desire in one partner, but not necessarily the other. Everything from our medication use to our sleep habits to the amount of stress we’re under to the way we feel about our relationship has the potential to impact sexual desire. Given the broad range of factors that influence desire, identifying the underlying cause(s) is important when choosing the best course of treatment.
This means that, unfortunately, there are no quick and simple fixes, like pills that magically adjust the partners’ libidos to match one another. Drug companies have been hard at work trying to create pills like this, but they’ve found that sexual desire just isn’t easily changed this way. The good news is that there are a number of steps you and your partner can take that have the potential to help.
For insight into handling desire discrepancies, I spoke wih Dr. Lori Brotto, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia who researches sexual desire. As a starting point, Brotto suggests that we step back and look at desire discrepancies as a couple’s issue—not a problem specific to the low-desire or high-desire partner. Blaming each another for wanting “too much” or “not enough” sex is counterproductive. This is a relationship issue that you both need to work on together rather than something one of you addresses alone.
Next, identify whether there are any health issues or stressors that might be impeding sexual desire, like chronic fatigue or adjusting to parenthood. According to Brotto, “Usually, addressing those other issues is necessary before addressing sexual difficulties.” In other words, there might be value in consulting a doctor and/or re-evaluating your work-life balance before anything else.
From here, it’s all about touch and communication. Part of the issue is that our partners don’t always know what we like sexually—and if your partner is doing things that you’re not really into, that can put a damper on desire. So you might need to step back and spend some time teaching each other what feels good and what doesn’t. Indeed, Brotto says that “couple touching exercises such as ‘sensate focus,’ which are designed to inform a partner where and how one likes to be touched, can be very effective.”
Touch isn’t just a valuable teaching technique but also a great lead-in to sex. For example, giving each other massages can help with relaxation and stress relief—and, in the process, it just might put both of you in the mood. This is probably why research has found that couples who give each other mini-massages and backrubs are more sexually satisfied than those who don’t.
Beyond this, we need to be mindful of how we deal with sexual frustration and try to approach sexual disagreements in productive ways. For example, if you feel like your sexual needs aren’t being met, being confrontational with your partner in the heat of the moment might make things worse in the long run. According to Brotto, such behavior “can further push [your] partner away sexually and widen the discrepant desire divide.” Therefore, consider ways of coping with bouts of sexual frustration, like masturbation, that aren’t going to escalate conflict.
Finally, as unsexy as it sounds, scheduling sex or having regular date nights can help, too. As Brotto notes, “by planning sex, it can help to promote healthy and sexy anticipation of it.” For example, one advantage of having sex on a schedule is that it allows time to prepare. For example, if you agree to shut off your phones for a few hours beforehand, this can help to clear your heads of distractions that might otherwise interfere with interest in—and enjoyment of—sex. Also, by planning sex, you can build up to it, such as by sexting your partner to let them know how attractive they are to you. “Foreplay need not be a few minutes, but can extend over several days,” says Brotto.
Though many couples facing sexual desire discrepancies feel hopeless, the truth of the matter is that there’s actually a lot you can to do manage these situations in healthy and mutually satisfying ways.
Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Ball State University, a Faculty Affiliate of The Kinsey Institute, and author of the blog Sex and Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.